We got down from the boat and stood in a loose group on one of the ghats, waiting for someone to guide us to our transportation. Though I had spent nearly a decade in this city, yet, finding my way from the ghats to the main road at this time of the night was well near impossible. Thus, we needed the expert help of our hosts to escort us through the labyrinthine gallis, or lanes of Varanasi.
Varanasi, like all ancient cities, is overpopulated, overcrowded, congested, and overflowing to the brim with people. The people who reside here, have lived in this city for generations, building new residences, and partitioning old one, occupying every inch of open space available, encroaching on road, street, square, field, or park till the old city doesn’t have anymore open space left. Varanasi, like other ancient cities in the world – Rome, Vienna, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Kolkatta – lives in her narrow lanes. And it was these narrow lanes that we were going to navigate tonight.
‘Here, here,’ came a voice from an opening in the buildings which stood shoulder to shoulder on the edge of the river.
Someone peered into the opening and found Krishna Jee Pandey, our host, KG, standing there, gesticulating. To our collective surprise, what looked like a door, or a break in the continuous wall of residences, turned out to be one end of a street leading inside the belly of the creature that is the old city of Varanasi.
‘Come, come,’ KG shouted once more, as the crowd started to move sluggishly towards him.
‘Follow me, hold hands, and don’t get lost,’ came the instructions, one after the other.
‘Stay with me,’ I said to Vaishali, as I held the hand of the girls, and motioned Vaishali to follow me. ‘Lets not lose our way in the dark. It will be one hell of a job to find each other if we were to get separated.’
Vaishali nodded, and moved in closer, as we started our brisk walk towards the main road, following KG.
KG moved quickly through the streets as if he knew them like the back of his hand, as if he had walked these streets everyday, was familiar with them like his own home. We quickened our pace to keep up with him, not wanting to be left behind.
As we moved through the narrow alleyways, I noticed how there was a whole world inside these lanes. Layers upon layers of residences, tightly packed together, shops selling grocery, fruits, vegetables, electronics, masonry, offering coaching classes, tutorials, automobile workshops, garages, miniature temples, wells, taps, drains, and an overhead web of wires – telephone wires, television cables, internet optical fibres, and power lines.
Some people sat on miniature porches after their dinner, peering out of their homes with mild interest at the train of people rushing by – people who obviously did not belong here. Clad in Benetton, and Puma, and Levis, their digital cameras slung on their shoulders, expensive phones in their hands, dragging their children behind them who, from their expressions, looked like they had just been through the horror show in Universal Studios. Few merchants were just closing their shops, pulling the shutters down, locking the grills, sweeping the verandahs where they displayed their wares in the daytime. Naked bulbs hung from balconies, and lamp posts, and often a stray cow would pass by, urinating or defecating, as it pleased, and drawing surprised yelps from the train of people passing by it.
At places water dripped from the broken municipal tap which the corporation forgot to repair, creating a small puddle of slosh where stray dogs wallowed, eating out of the garbage that the benevolent residents of these environs threw out of their houses. The garbage lying in the streets served the twin purposes of keeping the houses of the people clean from inside, as well as feeding the stray animals which roamed these lanes, and had been co-existing here with the humans since times immemorial.
We must have walked through this fantastic world for at least half an hour, and had lost all hope of returning back to civilisation when, suddenly, out of nowhere, we passed through an arched gate and were out on to the main road filled with chaotic traffic and honking vehicles.
‘At last,’ I exclaimed, as I finally let go of the hands of the girls, and looked around for our vehicle…….
To be continued……..
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I felt as if I was walking through those streets again!
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